There’s no way Amazon Studios could have predicted they would release Nash Edgerton’s Gringo on the same day hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli was sentenced to seven years in prison for securities fraud. Shkreli—nicknamed the “Pharma Bro”—swiftly became one of the most hated people in America when in September 2015 he raised the price of Daraprim, a medication for HIV/AIDS patients, from $13.5 to $750 per pill, effectively forcing buyers to choose between financial ruin and death. In the three years since, Shkreli came to personify the ideal of the Wall Street criminal in America’s popular imagination—a privileged sociopath who took genuine glee in destroying lives and relished every opportunity to mock and belittle his victims and “haters.” He was the perfect post-Occupy Wall Street, pre-President Trump white collar boogeyman. Even in this politically tumultuous era of North Korean tension, the #MeToo and #NeverAgain movements, and a growing populist wave against incumbent Republicans, the news of his sentencing came as a genuine shock to millions of netizens. If Amazon could have known beforehand, they might have been able to tweak their marketing for Gringo to downplay its scattershot black humor and instead emphasize its underpinnings as a preposterous yet satisfying revenge fantasy against Shkreli’s wealthy buddies.
The film is essentially a throwback to the kind of heist films that were Steven Soderbergh’s bread and butter in the 2000s: crime comedies with many moving parts where beautiful people in suits outsmarted—and occasionally outstupided—each other into wealth and power. But instead of focusing on a clever hero who stayed one step ahead of the authorities and rival criminals, Gringo focuses on a well-meaning schmuck whose world falls apart. We meet Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a mid-level manager working at Cannabax Technologies Inc, a pharmaceutical company that has developed a medical marijuana “Weed Pill” just across the border in a Mexican lab. An immigrant from Nigeria, Harold is a long-suffering, self-effacing boob who allowed himself into a predatory friendship with his douchebro boss Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) who not only is cuckolding him with his wife Bonnie (Thandie Newton) but plans to fire him after an upcoming company merger. (Before you ask, yes, Edgerton in this film is a dead ringer for Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, Inc.) During a business trip to Mexico to investigate the Weed Pill’s development, Harold gets wind of Richard’s plans and his wife’s infidelity and concocts a scheme to pretend to get kidnapped by a Mexican cartel and demand $2 million in ransom from his own company.
Complications ensue. The least of these involve Richard and his equally nightmarish and callous co-executive Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) truly not caring about Harold. Instead of coughing up the $2 million—barely pocket change for a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company—they’d prefer to hire Mitch’s estranged, emotionally unhinged ex-mercenary brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley) to steal him back across the border for a paltry $200k. If worst comes to worst, they’d happily collect on Harold’s $5 million corporate life insurance policy. But poor Harold also has other things to worry about, the most immediate being his being mistaken by an actual Mexican drug cartel boss as the president of Richard’s company, who quickly has him kidnapped for real. (In another astonishing coincidence of real-life timing, the boss goes by the nickname “Black Panther.”) After accidentally killing his two cartel kidnappers, Harold finds himself shell-shocked, confused, and covered in blood on the side of a rural Mexican highway where he’s picked up by Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), a classic silent film era ingenue, and her boyfriend, who unbeknownst to her is a drug mule. Before long, the hapless Harold is being pursued by Mitch, the Black Panther, and the DEA in a madcap chase across Mexico.
The film ends with a satisfying cathartic punch that sees the evil and wealthy (mostly) punished and the foolish yet good-hearted Harold triumphant. The last act is a tour de force of coincidence and character work that rivals the labyrinthine story machinations of classic screwball comedies strained through a filter of Coen Brothers nihilism. The climax is a shocking Shakespearean bloodbath that sees a sizable chunk of the cast butchered in the space of a few minutes as Harold desperately stumbles from one armed standoff to another. The tragedy of Gringo is that the entire film doesn’t maintain the swiftness and cleverness of its last thirty minutes. The major problem is its structure, which tediously slogs through the first hour setting up the various dominos to be knocked down later. The humor during this time is predictable and banal: the first time we meet Richard he’s zipping up his pants mid-intercourse while complaining to his secretary for not holding his calls while he’s “in a meeting.” The first time we meet Harold, we see him act out the tired it’s-cold-outside-but-my-dog-won’t-poop shtick.
There’s also the curious case of Elaine, who gets a solid fifteen minute subplot about her being a misunderstood, emotionally damaged train wreck who misuses her corporate power to cope with a troubled childhood. One can’t help but wonder if Theron used her power as one of the film’s producers to leverage for more screen time, as the subplot contributes nothing to the overall story and grinds the film’s momentum to a stop when it should have been gaining steam.
Gringo is a flawed film that needed one more draft to streamline things and fix the overall pacing. Clocking in at a bloated 110 minutes, one can’t help but imagine another universe where the film is a punchy 85. But for all its problems, I still left the theater feeling satisfied. Sometimes it’s enough to see the blue collar David win against the white collar Goliath.